Verifying the dates and authenticity of objects found for-sale on the worldwide antiquities market has always been a challenge for art collectors, museums, and dealers. As soon as something because popular enough to be collected, it becomes profitable to create a market for forged knockoffs.
In the early 2000s, a new set of purported fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls came up for sale on the antiquities market. In 2002, another set of Dead Sea Scroll-like fragments was located with some distinctly unusual characteristics compared with the known Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been heavily studied since they were discovered in the mid-20th century. Many were acquired by Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, who donated them to the Museum of the Bible.
The Museum of the Bible opened in 2017 but, facing doubts about the provenance of its 16 scroll fragments, it submitted five of them for authentication. In 2018, the Museum had to acknowledge all five of the sacred text fragments were fake. Next, the Museum sent off the other 11 fragments for authentication. As of Friday, as National Geographic reports, all 16 fragments purchased and shown as authentic have been confirmed as fraudulent.
The Museum of the Bible Appears to Have Handled This the Right Way
One point National Geographic makes up-front is that the Museum of the Bible has done a very good job at maintaining transparency at every step of the process. After the first five fragments were found to be fraudulent, the museum hired a respected art forgery investigation firm. That firm, Art Fraud Insights, insisted upon — and received — complete investigatory autonomy, including a public announcement of the findings, no matter what the findings were. “Honestly, I’ve never worked with a museum that was so up-front,” Colette Loll, the lead investigator, told National Geographic.
The team began with an analysis of the material the scraps were written on — leather, rather than the typical parchment of the DSS. The leather, however, was likely authentic and of appropriate age, possibly sourced from the same desert area that the Scrolls were found in. The scraps were soaked in an animal glue to mimic a signature glue-like layer actually found on many Scroll pieces. As National Geographic details, the deeper the research team looked, the clearer it was that the scraps had been faked.
It’s worth reading the story just to understand how sophisticated the forgery world can be. Green had purchased some of the scraps from William Kando, the son of the Bethlehem antiquities dealer Khalil Iskander Shahin (known as Kando) who had sold the first sets of authentic fragments from Bedouin traders after the Scrolls were discovered in 1947. The chain of ownership for some of the fragments runs through multiple individuals, some of whom told NG that they believed they were honestly buying (and selling) authentic artifacts.
Disclosing the outcome of its findings, even when they invalidate the entirety of its collection, was the right thing for the Museum of the Bible to do, full stop. One thing it does highlight, however, is how lax rules around the museum’s initial collection of artifacts have come back to haunt it. Here’s National Geographic:
In 2017, U.S. officials forced Hobby Lobby to return 5,500 illegally imported clay tablets to Iraq and pay a $3-million fine. In 2019, museum officials announced that 11 papyrus fragments in its collection had been sold to Hobby Lobby by Oxford professor Dirk Obbink, who is accused of stealing the fragments from a papyrus collection he oversaw.
The Museum has pledged to return all stolen artifacts to their rightful owners and has actually begun doing so. A manuscript found to be stolen from the University of Athens in 1991 was returned to that country last year. Kudos to the MotB for being honest about its issues, but it wouldn’t have had these problems if it had been slightly less willing to believe dubious stories about the archaeological provenance of suspicious artifacts.
Feature image is of a genuine Dead Sea Scroll. Image by Wikipedia
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